Tesla Electric Semi-Truck Details Revealed


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Never before has a semi-truck been as hyped as the electric tractor trailer unveiled tonight at Tesla’s design studio in Hawthorne, California. We’re not sure if our minds have been blown out of our skulls as Tesla CEO Elon Musk promised on Twitter, but the truck that the company unveiled tonight does introduce a few innovations that could significantly benefit the trucking industry if the vehicle makes it to production.

The truck, called simply the Tesla Semi, uses an in-house-designed chassis that integrates the battery packs just like every other modern Tesla product. In a walk-around briefing for media ahead of the big presentation, a Tesla representative said the entire truck was designed from the ground up and that safety, efficiency, and driver comfort were all top priorities for engineers and designers. The battery packs are reinforced and sit low in the chassis for a low center of gravity, which is likely part of the reason Musk tweeted that it “feels like a sports car.” Tesla says the battery packs use similar chemistry to other products in its lineup, and that they’re designed for repeated charging cycles.

No specs were given at the briefing, but Tesla did confirm the truck uses four Model 3 electric motors—one for each rear wheel. The Tesla Semi falls under the Federal Highway Administration’s class 8 heavy duty category, which is the highest weight rating at up to 33,001 pounds. The fifth wheel, where the trailer attaches, is the largest size available and can accommodate any size trailer. The truck we saw was a day cab, meaning there’s no space for the driver to sleep. A sleeper cab may come later, though, we were told.

The cab was designed to make the most efficient use of the space, and it certainly does feel spacious compared to current diesel tractor trailers. Because there’s no combustion engine to protrude into the cab, you don’t have the traditional “dog house” center console found in contemporary big rigs. This allows for a single driver seat mounted in the center of the cab that provides better visibility and safety in a crash, according to Tesla. The windshield is made of impact-resistant glass, and the side windows open manually to reduce complexity.

The central seating position combined with the cab-forward design offers a commanding view of the road. Flanking the seat are two large screens borrowed from the Model 3 that display instruments, camera displays, and other info important to truckers. Tesla says its trucks can be directly patched in to a company’s fleet management system, which would in theory cut out the third party that would normally handle routing, scheduling, and monitoring. In case someone needs to ride shotgun, there’s a fold-down jump seat next in back of the cab on what be the passenger side.

Safety was one of the most important considerations for Tesla, and the truck features some interesting tech to help make it safer. Onboard sensors can detect instability and correct it by applying positive or negative torque as needed to each wheel and actuating the brakes. This feature is intended to prevent jackknifing. There are also surround cameras to reduce blind spots that automatically alert the driver to obstacles. The Semi will come equipped with Tesla’s Enhanced Autopilot semi-autonomous system. The automaker hasn’t given any details on the system’s capabilities except to say it will offer automatic emergency braking, lane keeping, and lane departure warning. Exact hardware is also unknown, though we’re told the system still relies on a combination of cameras, ultrasonic sensors, and radar.

Tesla also touts reliability as one of the Semi’s big breakthroughs. Because there are fewer moving parts, there’s less to break down, it contends. That also means less maintenance, which would cut costs for operators.

Tesla’s semi-truck is impressive, but it’s not the only company working on a vehicle to revolutionize the trucking industry. This past summer, Cummins debuted an all-electric semi with a range of 100 miles (or 300 miles with extra battery packs). China’s BYD and Mercedes-Benz parent company Daimler also have electric semis in the works. Meanwhile, Utah’s Nikola Motor and auto giant Toyota each have a hydrogen fuel cell truck. Toyota’s Project Portal has already begun drayage test runs between the ports of L.A. and Long Beach. Tesla also isn’t the first to work on autonomous systems for heavy-duty trucks. Uber’s Otto, Google’s Waymo, Volvo, and Daimler are all busy trying to automate trucking and eliminate the driver to both reduce costs and decrease the chances for driver error.

Still, if Tesla can bring its semi-truck to market at a competitive price, it could give conventional trucking companies a reason to go green. Neither pricing nor production plans have been announced at this point. Stay tuned as we update this post from the reveal.

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